Keith’s first memory was around the age of three when his dad took him out to the barn to show him the horses. He remembered being instantly infatuated with their kind eyes, soft muzzles, and the flick of their inquiring ears. His dad had lifted him up in his arms and let Keith reach out to pet one of them on the nose.
“You like them, Keith?” he’d asked, and Keith nodded enthusiastically.
His dad laughed at that. “Good. They’re our family business. Someday, if you want it, this whole farm will be yours.”
Keith stared at his dad, eyes wide and grinning from ear to ear. “Yeah! I want that!”
“Well, in that case, I think it’s time you get your first pony.”
Keith squealed with excitement in the way only little kids could. He wriggled out of his dad’s arms, nearly falling on the ground, and took off running towards the paddocks behind the barn. Sure enough, there was a little pinto pony waiting for him in one of the dirt lots. His name was Rocket, and he was the final part of the night that cemented Keith’s love for horses throughout the years.
By the time Keith was twenty-two years old, Rocket was one of the few things he had left from his father. The little pony was, of course, retired then, living out his days tormenting the bigger horses in the fields. Although he was no longer ridable, Keith would always love the little turd of a pony and vowed that he’d always have a home on their farm. Now Keith had his mare, Red, that he was working up through the levels of eventing in Rocket’s stead.
He stood at the fence one summer evening, watching the herd of horses grazing while the sunset in a picturesque scene behind them. His mom stood beside him, a comforting hand on Keith’s shoulder. Her purple hair stood out sharply in the late afternoon sunlight, and Keith wondered for the hundredth time why she insisted on dyeing her hair that color all the time.
“Keith, you’re being stubborn,” She said, the exhaustion evident in her voice.
“We’ve been managing fine since dad passed,” He shot back, not wanting to meet his mother’s eyes because he knew there’d be only frustration and disappointment in them.
Krolia let out a long sigh at that. “That’s bullshit, kid, and you know it.”
Keith said nothing, jaw set in that stubborn way he’d gotten from her. Rocket chose that moment to bite one of the bigger horses on the ass and ran away before the bay gelding could retaliate. The little pony had been a shit when Keith was learning to ride, but it made him all the better horseman for it.
He saw his mother turn to leave out of the corner of his eye, but she stopped before walking away to say, “Just...talk to Allura, please. She has a friend looking for work and I think he’d be a good fit.”
“Fine. I’ll hear her out.” Keith relented, but let his tone convey how much he was still against the idea.
He waited until he heard the back door of the house slam shut before walking to the garage to get his motorcycle. He swung his leg over the red Ducati and revved the throttle before heading off towards town.
Keith parked his bike in front of one of the singular restaurant in his tiny hometown Altea Diner. Other than the usual gas station and post office, the town had nowhere else to hang out after six in the evening, so Altea was the closest they had to a local hangout. Often Keith found himself dreaming of escaping this town and moving to a large city, or maybe joining the army, anything to get him out of Garrison and making a difference in the world.
But his mom wouldn’t be able to handle any more loss now that it was just the two of them. And he had no idea what he would do without the horses in his life.
He killed the engine and walked in, waving at his friend Hunk behind the bar counter and taking a seat in an empty corner booth.
Almost immediately, a small waitress walked up to Keith’s table. Instead of taking an order though, she slammed a glass of water down in front of him and then took a seat on the other side of the booth.
He raised an eyebrow before picking up a menu and pretending to look it over. “You could use some work on your service skills, Pidge.”
She shrugged, resting her cheek in the palm of her hand. “It’s slow tonight. Why are you even here?”
“I was hoping Allura would be in,” Keith replied as he placed the menu back on the table.
Pidge fixed him with a look. “We have cell phones. You could text her to see where she’s at.”
It was Keith’s turn to shrug. “I wanted out of the house anyway.”
Pidge hummed at that but dropped the subject. It was one of many things Keith loved about her as his best friend—she knew when to push him and when not to. Anything to do with his dad was currently part of the latter. “She’s in the office, I’ll go grab her for you.”
“Thanks. Can I order though?”
“No. That’s Lance’s job,” Pidge walked away before Keith could argue.
Keith grumbled but sat back in the booth and sipped sullenly at his water.
A few minutes later, Allura walked out of the back and smiled when she found Keith. She came over and sat down in the seat Pidge had occupied before, her eyebrow raised in question at Keith’s water.
“Pidge said Lance has my table,” he grunted by way of explanation.
Allura rolled her eyes and looked over her shoulder to yell for Lance. Keith saw Lance’s head of brown hair stick out from the kitchen door with a confused expression until his eyes landed on Keith and Allura. Keith actually saw him mouth “shit” before rushing out to the table, pen and paper in hand.
“So do I need to go through the whole ‘I’m Lance and I’ll be your waiter’ spiel or—?”
Keith handed him back the menu. “Just shut up and bring me the usual.”
“A please would be nice.” Lance took the menu anyway and walked back to the kitchen again. Keith flipped off his retreating back and Allura reached across the table to smack him on the side of the head.
He knew he deserved that but didn’t actually care.
When Allura was sitting back in her seat, she finally asked Keith, “So to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Mom thinks we need to hire someone for the farm.”
Keith rolled his eyes. Allura damn well knew what he was going to ask but she was going to make him say it anyway.
“I don’t think we do, but she said you have a friend looking for work?”
Allura beamed when he asked. “Yes, I do! I’d offer him a job here at the diner but I don’t think this kind of work would suit him. He just got out of the military, and ah—to be honest, he was badly injured and has some PTSD from it. He’s a wonderful person and hard worker, so I think being on the farm with the horses would really be beneficial for him.”
“Does he know anything about horses?” Keith asked because that seemed like a pretty relevant detail Allura had omitted.
In response, she shifted in her seat and seemed to be searching for the right words. Keith already knew what the answer was before she even said it, “No. But he’s a fast learner. I brought him out one time to meet Juniberry and she was very fond of him.”
Keith had to wonder where he had been for that. Allura kept her gray mare, Juniberry, at his farm, so he must have been away at a show that day since he had no memory of her ever bringing anyone other than Lance to the farm.
Not to mention all the guy had to do was give Juniberry a few treats and that horse would instantly be his best friend.
With a resigned sigh, Keith knew he could trust Allura. She’d never steered him wrong in all the years they’d been friends so he finally asked, “What’s his name?”
Allura’s face lit up, knowing she had Keith where she wanted him. “His name is Shiro.”
“Alright, give him my number and tell him to give me a call. I’ll set up a time to interview him.”
The excited squeal that came from Allura’s mouth was not human, Keith was convinced. But she jumped across the ugly Formica table to throw her arms around him and repeat “Thank you, thank you!” over and over again until he was pushing her away and laughing at her antics.
Lance finally reappeared with a cheeseburger and fries and plopped the plate down in front of Keith without fanfare. He also put down a chocolate milkshake Keith did not order, and when he shot Lance a questioning look, he smiled and said “compliments of the chef.”
“Hunk! Damn it, stop giving me free shit!” Keith yelled over his shoulder.
“Nope, no can do, buddy!” Hunk called back from the kitchen.
“Both of you shut up,” Allura groaned.
Thankfully the diner was completely empty other than their little group, so they continued to volley playful insults at each other until it was time to close. At that point, Allura shooed Keith out so her employees could close up without further distraction, but she promised that her friend would be calling him the next day.
His ride home was mostly spent mulling over his options. By the time he pulled back into the driveway, he figured he had nothing to lose just from talking to this Shiro guy. He really hadn’t been able to focus on training the horses lately because he’d been so busy doing general farm work.
He decided that he didn’t have to share that bit of information with his mother just yet, though.
Red was having a day where she was tossing her head at every slight notion of contact and swishing her tail irritably when he asked her to move off his leg, so the ride went much longer than he had initially planned. By the time he got off her, she was soaked in sweat, with ears pinned when he went to wipe her down. He kept muttering under his breath about what a brat she was, but in all honesty, her bitchy personality was part of why he loved her so much. (Or so he told himself as she reached around and bit him as he brushed her back)
He’d even forgotten that he was waiting for Shiro to call him, so he panicked when he heard the voicemail and hit “call back” before he could even think through any of the questions he wanted to ask this guy.
“Takashi Shirogane speaking,” came the answer from the other end.
Shit . Keith internally panicked. Stay calm and ask some normal sounding questions.
“Uh, hi. This is Keith, from Marmora Stables. Allura said you were looking for work?”
“Yeah!” Shiro’s voice was radiating excitement, even through the phone speakers.
“Great. First things first, do you have any experience around horses?”
The silence that came from the other end was all the answer Keith needed, but he gave Shiro the chance to answer. Sure enough, Shiro’s tentative response came, “Uh, no. Honestly, I don’t. I’ve only ever seen Allura’s horse maybe once.”
Keith sighed but decided that wasn’t the end of the world. They mostly needed handy work done around the property and general farm maintenance more than the actual care of the horses. “That’s not a huge deal.” and explained what he was looking for help-wise.
After running through a few more questions, Keith decided Shiro seemed like he was worth giving a trial run, at least. They agreed that Shiro would come out the next day and Keith would show him around, give him a quick breakdown on what he expected Shiro to do, and overall see how it worked out.
Unfortunately for Keith, he was woefully unprepared for just how attractive Shiro was.
When Shiro first pulled up to the farm in his beat up, black Chevy truck, Keith suddenly couldn’t remember how to breathe. The man who got out of the truck was tall, extremely well muscled, and wearing nothing more than tight jeans and a black tank top. Sweat was shining off his broad shoulders in the summer heat, and he had white hair, although he couldn’t have been more than a few years older than Keith. His right arm was replaced by a very high-tech looking prosthetic, probably courtesy of the military, and he had a red scar over the bridge of his nose. It only made him look that much more rugged and attractive.
Shiro spotted Keith standing over next to the ring, and the smile he flashed Keith was so incredible he just knew he was done for. It didn’t matter if Shiro was qualified or not, Keith was going to give him the job.
“Keith?” Shiro asked tentatively.
Shiro grinned and stuck out his prosthetic hand. “Yup! Nice to meet you.”
Keith nodded and stared dumbly at Shiro’s hand before remembering to take it in his own and shake.
Krolia walked out of the barn just then and didn’t even try to hide the eye roll when she saw the two of them. She made her way over and gave Keith a sharp nudge to the ribs before saying, “My idiot son says ‘nice to meet you too’. And I’m Krolia.”
Keith snapped back to attention and took the offered hand in a firm shake. “Yeah, glad to have you here.”
Krolia took over and began the tour, knowing damn well Keith wasn’t going to be able to focus for anything. She showed Shiro the pastures, the ring, and the barn, the workshop where he’d be spending most of his time, and finally introduced him to the horses. Shiro nodded as she explained everything and asked polite questions, and by the end of the tour, Keith was pretty sure he knew Krolia wanted to hire him too.
“Well, I’ll leave you two alone to go over the final details. Keith, offer Shiro the paperwork and answer any other questions he might have.”
And just like that, Keith was alone with Shiro. Krolia had a knack for disappearing without a trace when she wanted to.
Keith motioned for Shiro to follow him and they made their way to the small office at the end of the barn aisle. When he opened the door, he was greeted by a loud “woof!” as a large malamute ran out of the door and jumped on Keith, licking him while his tail wagged so fast it just looked like a blur.
“Ugh, Kosmo, down!” Keith tried to sound stern but he was laughing and scratching the huge dog behind the ears.
“Who’s this?” Shiro chuckled and Kosmo looked at him as if just realizing there was a new person there. He pushed off of Keith’s chest and trotted over to the stranger, sniffing him cautiously before his tail began wagging again and he bumped his head to Shiro’s hand for a pet.
“This is Kosmo. It’s too hot outside for him today, so I was keeping him in the office with the air conditioning.” Keith whistled to the dog to return and gave him a pat on the head as the three of them entered the office and closed the door behind them.
Keith began shuffling around for the paperwork he needed to offer Shiro for the job, and while he did that Shiro stood off to the side of the desk.
“So uhh—do you ride regularly?” Shiro asked, looking sheepish.
God what a stupid question to ask a horse trainer . Keith tried to fight the eye roll he felt building. “Yeah. Mom oversees the breeding operations, but I’m the one who breaks and trains all of our horses. I have a couple of my own personal horses, but we teach a lot of lessons too. Some local kids also help out with the feeding and stalls during the week. You might meet Romelle today, she usually does chores on Tuesdays and Fridays after school.”
Shiro nodded. “What kind of riding do you do here?”
Keith quirked an eyebrow at him at that question, as if Shiro would even understand the different disciplines of riding. “We specialize in retraining thoroughbreds here. Most of them retire from their racing careers at around four or five years old and have nowhere to go. They’re a crazy athletic and versatile breed, and we want to show people that they have so much more to give after their racing days are over.”
He could already tell Shiro was totally lost, so he tried to find some familiar ground to explain it. “Allura said she’s brought you out here before?”
“Oh! Yeah. She showed me her horse. Her name is Juniberry, right?”
“Yeah. Allura does dressage. Not sure how much she’s explained it to you.”
From the look on Shiro’s face, he was guessing none.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. This is all stuff you’ll learn as you spend time here. The over-simplified explanation of dressage is that it’s like horse dancing, but I really hate using that description.”
He offered no more explanation beyond that and watched for Shiro’s reaction. His expression seemed neutral, if not a little bored, so Keith decided to drop it. There was nothing to gain by boring his newest employee to tears.
“Alright, well, so long as you agree to the pay and terms of the job, all you have to do is sign this agreement and you’re hired.” Keith handed the papers over to Shiro and waited for him to take them and look them over.
Once everything was signed and made official, Keith gave Shiro a wry smile. “Welcome to the Voltron Stables family.”
Shiro beamed, and Keith wasn’t sure it was possible for a human to smile as much as Shiro did. “Thanks! Excited to be here.”
Even Kosmo came over and pawed Shiro’s leg, begging for attention. Shiro laughed and leaned down to pet him. He seemed so at ease around the animals, Keith had a feeling it wouldn’t be too hard to teach him the basics of working around the horses.
“Well, Romelle will be getting here in a few minutes to start evening chores. I’m just going to give her a list of things I need her to do and then we’re all done here for the night.”
Shiro nodded, still playing with Kosmo and not fully paying attention. Something about the ease with which Shiro interacted with the big dog lit a small spark in Keith’s chest. Keith had admittedly never been great with people, which was part of why he loved the horses so much. And to see Shiro playing with Kosmo like it was second nature made Keith think maybe he was making the right choice by hiring Shiro.
“So uh, how long have you known Allura?” Keith didn’t know why he suddenly asked the question, but a small piece in the back of his brain was nagging him to get to know Shiro a little better.
“Honestly? Since we were kids. My grandfather and her father were good friends so we’ve just always kind of known each other.”
Keith nodded, unsure of where to continue the conversation. Shiro took the abrupt halt in stride though and went back to playing tug-of-war with the rope toy Kosmo had produced from some dusty corner of the office.
Before he could second guess himself, Keith blurted out the next thing that came to mind. “A bunch of us are going to hang out at a friend’s house tonight if you want to come. Allura will be there.”
At that, Shiro looked up, confusion and excitement written all over his face. “Yeah, I’d love that. I have to admit, I haven’t been the most social since I moved back...it would be good for me to see some people my own age.”
Keith was somewhat surprised to hear that but reminded himself that this man had lost an arm and been in a war. Whatever traumas he had were none of Keith’s business, but at the same time, he felt compelled to help Shiro however he could.
Twenty minutes later found them at Hunk’s house, several cars already parked in the driveway. Keith and Shiro had ridden over separately as Shiro insisted he lived the next town over and didn’t want Keith to feel like he should have to drop him off if they drank too much. He saw Pidge and Lance’s cars there already, as well as a few he didn't recognize.
Hunk lived in a small house on the edge of town, away from any nosy neighbors who would make a noise complaint on them. It was the best place for their friends to gather, as small-town politics would cause too much gossip otherwise. Allura’s father was the most successful real estate owner in town, so he had an obsession for keeping his reputation as close to flawless as possible, and Allura wanted nothing more than to make her father proud.
“Keith!” Hunk shouted by way of greeting when they entered the front door. “Who’s the friend?”
“Shiro!” Allura cried from somewhere in the back of the room before running up to give him a fierce hug.
Shiro laughed and returned the hug. Keith couldn’t help the twinge of jealousy he felt at their familiar closeness, how easy it was for them to hug and talk with such intimacy.
Jesus Christ, Kogane, where did that thought come from? Keith mentally scolded himself, shocked by his own thoughts.
Lance chose that moment to interrupt Keith’s train of thought, throwing an arm around Keith’s shoulder and offering him a can of Coors Light. Keith made a face at the cheap beer but accepted it, popping the tab and taking a long pull, all while fighting his instinct to grimace at the nasty taste.
Once Shiro and Allura had disappeared into the kitchen, Lance nudged Keith. “Who’s the hottie you came with?”
Keith rolled his eyes and shoved Lance off of him. “Allura’s friend Shiro that she was talking about the other night. I hired him today.”
“Oh ho-ho!” Lance had that smug look that usually made Keith want to punch him.
“I swear to God, Lance if you make some awful sex joke I will end you.”
The conversation devolved from there, with Lance and Keith falling into the bickering that was typical of their friendship. Pidge would occasionally pop her head in to make a snide comment and rile them up again, but eventually, they found themselves in the backyard, still drinking cheap beer around a fire Allura had gotten started.
Shiro found his way over to them and took a seat in the empty lawn chair next to Keith. He gave Keith a sideways glance as he opened his own drink. He seemed like he wanted to say something, but Lotor, Allura’s rich asshole of a boyfriend, was making some speech or another to the group about local politics and why their town was trash. Nobody had actually been listening to him for quite some time. Keith really hated Lotor and made it a point to ignore the white-haired man as much as he could.
“Is this a normal Saturday night for you?” Shiro’s voice came from his right, starting Keith back into reality.
Keith shrugged, throwing back more beer in a deep chug. “Sometimes. As you’ve noticed, this town is pretty small. We don’t have many other options without driving a few hours to the nearest city. And we all work nonstop so taking a weekend off to travel isn’t possible.”
Shiro hummed at that, a neutral sound that made Keith wonder if he’d said anything to offend him. It made Keith uncomfortable not knowing how to respond, so he just blurted out the first thought that popped into his head: “If you’re from around here, how come we’ve never met before?”
Shiro paused for a second but broke into a sheepish smile at the question. “Well, I was raised by my grandfather. He lives here but he insisted on sending me to private school when I was a kid. So I never really got to meet any of the local kids my age.”
“Oh,” Keith wasn’t sure what else to say. He was a little buzzed already but somehow the idea that they had lived so close by their whole lives and yet never met until this afternoon somehow left Keith empty and sad.
“It’s not so bad,” Shiro nudged him with his shoulder. “Don’t look so sad for me. I actually went to school with Pidge’s brother. He’s been one of my best friends since second grade.”
“No shit, you know Matt?”
Shiro smiled and looked like he was about to say something, but Pidge yelled from the other side of the fire pit, “Yeah, and you two would gang up on me all the time . Don’t fall for his good looks and charming smile, Keith. This asshole once told me he and Matt made me a cake, but it was just a cardboard box they frosted.”
“Hey, that was prank war gold !” Shiro shot back.
“IT WAS TRAUMATIC!” Pidge lobbed her empty beer can at Shiro. “This is why I have trust issues.”
Shiro pouted and despite what Pidge was yelling, Keith found it adorable.
God, keep it together, Keith. He’s your employee now…
At that point, Allura let out a huge yawn. It was nearing 3 AM and everyone was slowing down. Keith especially was kicking himself for staying up so late because it didn’t matter how hungover he was, the horses still needed to be fed and their stalls cleaned at 7 every morning.
“Alright, I think that’s our cue. Everybody go home now,” Hunk’s voice was firm but still good-natured. Nobody was about to argue, anyway.
As everyone else got into their cars and drove off, Keith lingered back for a few extra minutes. Shiro met his eyes and nodded his understanding that Keith wanted him to stay behind, so he stood off to the corner and continued to chat idly with Keith until they were alone in Hunk’s driveway.
“Thanks for inviting me out tonight.” Shiro was shifting his weight from foot to foot, nervous energy radiating from him in a way that surprised Keith. “It was nice to spend time with people in my age group again.”
“Of course.” Keith smiled. “You should hang out with us more. Everyone really liked you.”
Shiro blushed at that but thanked Keith again. “Maybe I’ll see if Matt wants to come with us next time.”
“I’m sure he’d be glad for the invite. Pidge might be another story, but she’s a big girl, she’ll figure it out.”
They both chuckled at that, and Shiro held out his hand to Keith again. “Well, it was great meeting you tonight, Keith. I’ll see you on Monday?”
Keith grasped his hand and couldn’t help the grin on his face. “Yes. See you Monday.”
With that, Shiro got into his truck and drove off down the road, gravel flying and dirt kicking up in a cloud behind him.
It took Keith several minutes for his heart rate to go back down to normal. “Shit,” he groaned, rubbing his face with his hand. “This is bad.”
Shiro hadn’t even started working for him officially and Keith could already tell he was developing a massive crush on him.
Nothing good was going to come of this.